Two Steps Forward…

Jewish Light Editorial

Our beloved Israel still hasn’t emerged from its seemingly perpetual public relations quagmire.

After the Israeli Defense Forces succeeded admirably in defending the country during Operation Protective Edge, it looked like the world was coming around to a diplomatic solution that would delegitimize Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. Indeed, Hamas got virtually nothing it asked for in the ceasefire talks.

It appeared Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was ascending over Hamas as the preferred negotiating partner with Israel and the prospect for meaningful talks would ensue. In fact, Abbas made a proposal this week to restart overall peace talks.

All good, right? Not so fast.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Even before the ink could dry on the open-ended ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an ill-advised, untimely decision to appropriate 988 acres of Palestinian land in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank.

Israeli politicians from large swaths of the political spectrum, including Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, strongly criticized the move. Lapid, a prominent centrist and a key member of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, was reported at a conference last week as saying, “The announcement, which wasn’t brought to the cabinet, regarding 900 acres of land for building in Gush Ezion, harms the State of Israel.”

The timing of the decision was particularly of concern, Lapid noted. “We are after a military operation and facing a complex diplomatic reality. Maintaining the support of the world was already challenging, so why was it so urgent to create another crisis with the United States and the world?”

Lapid hit the nail on the head. Predictably, the United Nations, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with Egypt, various human rights groups and Palestinian officials, have assailed this ill-timed decision.

The latest move, which Israeli officials said was decided upon after the June killing of three Israeli teenagers from the Etzion settlement bloc (then why wasn’t it announced earlier?), is not the first time that the Israeli government has put the U.S. and Britain, normally supportive of Israel, in the unenviable position of joining the chorus of denunciations.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, Vice President Joe Biden was on an official visit to Israel when he was blind-sided by an Israeli Cabinet decision to build a major housing project in disputed territory. The episode severely damaged the already frosty relations between the governments in Washington and Jerusalem.

The move appears to be a concession to the rightist bloc in Knesset; this take seems more likely after Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman defended it this week. But it’s not even the taking of the land that is the most uncomfortable aspect of the situation, but rather an utter failure to recognize, or perhaps care about, how the action would be viewed both within and outside Israel. The message sent is that there is little regard for engaging in a meaningful diplomatic process to bring peace.

A thoughtful editorial in the Jerusalem Post noted, “Rather than the actual decision, it is the timing of the move that has aroused much ire, both in Israel and abroad. The decision to build in the area should not arouse tremendous controversy. After all, this is land located adjacent to the Etzion bloc, which is expected to remain part of Israel in any future two-state solution reached with the Palestinians.”

The editorial noted that the appropriation might have been made as revenge for the deaths of the kidnapped teens, which would be unfortunate, as “the decision to build or not to build in the West Bank should not be motivated by a desire for revenge.”

The land taking could not have come at a worse time for Israel and more moderate Palestinian officials. Despite the efforts by Hamas to stage a “victory lap” after the latest ceasefire was achieved in the negotiations in Cairo, many credible observers believe that Israel came out ahead on the negotiations. Hamas suffered tremendous losses, including about 1,000 of its terrorist fighters, three major military commanders and its finance minister.

Yossi Melman, in the Jerusalem Post, noted that, “One should not be impressed by the well-organized festivities in Gaza. Most of Hamas’ demands and preconditions were rejected from the outset.” He notes that Israel destroyed many of the underground terror tunnels and a substantial share of Hamas’ rocket arsenal.

This is hardly a unanimous view.  David Horovitz in The Times of Israel wrote, “Hamas victory celebrations should not be easily dismissed. If Hamas is not marginalized, if it proves capable of rearming and plotting new strategies towards its goal of our annihilation, the Israeli strategy for handling this conflict will have been a failure.”

Indeed, more than two-thirds of the Israeli public in a recent poll indicated opposition to the ceasefire for similar reasons. And polls among Palestinians in both territories show most believe Hamas won and that continued rocket fire is justified.

No matter the perception of the war’s outcome, it’s hard to imagine how the immediate land taking was necessary or desirable. The decision only increases disunity and confusion among the Israeli public at the very time national unity going forward is urgently needed. And it sends a message to the world that Israel will do what it wants, when it wants, regardless of whether it makes sense in the context of seeking a lasting piece.

It would be ideal if Netanyahu would heed the wise counsel of members of his own ruling coalition and delay the decision for later negotiations, in which this bloc is likely to remain with Israel anyway. The timing of the move basically made no sense, and deferring it would placate many and throw diplomatic leverage right back to Israel in what will surely be near-term talks.